Women in technology conferences and women's rights: The Disconnect

I just returned from Bangalore after attending the first Grace Hopper Conference (GHC) in India organized by the US based non-profit Anita Borg Institute of Women and Technology (ABI). This conference is a celebration of women in technology, a conference to discuss woman's role in technical workforce and find solutions to the challenges faced by women in the technical workforce owing to which there is such low representation of women in technology.

Recently I also attended the 10th Grace Hopper Conference in USA (also organized by ABI) and the Amrita ACM-W Celebration of Women in Computing (A2CWIC) in Coimbatore, India (organized in the Amrita University). The GHC in USA was spectacular. ABI has been organizing this conference for years and they really are good in what they do. The A2CWIC was the first of such conference in India with almost 1200 participants out of which 720 were women, mostly students. I was also involved in organizing the conference as the ACM-W Ambassador in India, but really the team from Amrita University were the real brains and sweat behind it. I intended to blog about it as well, however failed as I anyway expected. Writing is not a very flowing skill for me.

But after attending the GHC India I felt I need to write a piece on my experience after attending 3 consecutive conferences on women and technology. I believe that the new dialogue on women’s role in technology is a critical component of the discussion on women’s role in decision-making and I feel very happy to see this finally happening in India. Three years back when I decided to start FAT, I did massive search for any initiative related to women and technology and found that there was none except the diversity conference organized by NASSCOM, which was not exactly what I was looking for.  So this new league of women and technology conferences, though they are still far from having all streams of technology included in them, seem like a breath of fresh air to me. (All these conferences were mainly for women in computing.)

The first one to happen out of the 3 was the A2CWIC in Coimbatore. It was planned as an all women conference and hence the first of its kind in India. I was quite nervous about how it would turn out to be. Having followed the very few such attempts in India and found out that they were not so successful, I was worried if our little effort would turn out to be yet another conference for women with very few women participants. The work done by the Amrita University team is commendable. I enjoyed every single talk in the conference, specially the keynote given by Dr. Sheela Ramachandran, Vice-Chancellor of Avinashilingam University for Women. The perspective that she brought in, the amount of base information on the issue that she shared with the room set a very high energy, high expectations and focused tone to the conference. And of course every single speaker who followed maintained that high energy and passion and brought much more intense perspectives and information. What I liked most about each speaker was the simple and clear presentation that made it easy for everyone in the room to understand their very technical talk. It’s a very important skill needed for every technical speaker, because most of the times the listeners may not be quite familiar with the speaker’s subject. For example, I graduated as an electronics engineer 10 years ago, have been in web development since last 7 years and now actively in women’s rights since last 3 years. I have failed to keep myself up with latest trends in computing or in electronics. In fact, my technical knowledge is limited to simple website technologies. So if I find it easy to understand a very technical research on artificial intelligence, I mark it as a very good presentation, which by the way is a rare instance.

What I loved the most at A2CWIC was the very open discussion on work life balance. I personally felt the greatest hindrance for Indian women to pursue a career is the double burden of family and work and the fact that we always have to choose family over our personal desires. Which is why I liked that this issue was discussed extensively and almost all of the speakers had the same view on the issue.

  • Women do not need to feel responsible for everything in the family and hence feel guilty about not giving enough time at home.
  • Define your own relationships, whether with your kids and spouse or with other family and friends. Don't feel pressured to do things the way others want you to do.

I loved the fact that we were not going back to discussing how we women are all so powerful and if we make our mind to it, we can all manage a family as well as work on our own. We simply can't. We are not super heros. We can do only certain things and hence we need to be clear on what we want to do and stop trying to do everything.

Another thing I liked about the speakers was the openness, the willingness to share personal stories, which I think is a must to have your audience get involved in your talk.

Just two weeks after the A2CWIC, I was at the GHC in Atlanta, GA, USA. Each keynote speakers thrilled me! They were all powerhouses, each one of them! The discussions there were of course in a completely different level then here in India. Here in India we are still dealing with the basic challenge of women being able to pursue her career after marriage and kids, being able to take her own decisions without any sort of pressure of family responsibilities or stereotypes; their challenge is more sustaining and growing in technical fields, which we still have to get to.

Having seen the wonderful work of ABI at the GHC in USA and being anyway impressed by the work that ABI does, I went to GHC India last week with high expectations. And I was once again impressed by ABI’s work. ABI let a team of 98 women from the industry take the leadership in planning the conference, finding the speakers and decide the topics for discussion. This definitely was a great idea to build a community of women in technology in India and have them take the ownership of the community. And of course the committee did a great job.

The program was definitely very well planned. They covered a vast range of topics in four different tracks: beginners, managerial, independent contributors and invited technical talks. I attended at least one session from almost all tracks except the invited technical talks. There were some talks that definitely made me happy and totally love the speakers.

I particularly liked the session on “Law and your workplace” and even more, the speaker Madhu Katri, head of the legal department at WIPRO. She spoke not just about the laws, but also about empowerment. I really liked her ending statement that said something like “Empower yourself and the women around you. The laws are just tools. You need to take lead in building your workplace environment the way you want to see it.” (I don’t remember her exact wordings though). I felt that session was the only one amongst those I attended that really spoke about empowerment.

Also in the plenary session on the afternoon of the second day, I loved the fact that Krista Claude of Thomson Reuters spoke about sharing stories for visibility. This is something I believe, sharing stories makes any talk more interesting, involving and also impactful. When she mentioned this I realized that is what probably I was missing in many talks before. Even though the points in the slides were well-thought and made sense, they seemed to be lacking the emotional involvement of the room. May be that was because the presentation felt like scientific research that was far from reality, since they lacked the stories.

I also enjoyed the session on Entrepreneurship. I learnt many new things, which will be helpful for me being an entrepreneur myself. Most importantly I leant that the business I am running is a lifestyle business!

However in a few sessions I felt the speakers were under confident and could have been better prepared. I also felt that although the program was planned well, overall the discussions lacked depth. For example: I somehow felt that the discussions in most sessions focused on what we as technical women should do to be heard, be successful, fit in and face the race. I missed discussions on institutional changes required. It felt like the woman is the only one responsible for her career path, which I do not agree with at all. The speakers failed to see the different pressures that a woman faces, the indirect discrimination which de-motivates women in pursuing her technical career. Like in one session the speaker had a slide with tips to make sure you are heard. One of the points said choose your “water cooler small talks” topics carefully. She advised the listeners to talk about sports, current events or their product rather then talking about their family and personal life. I was pointed out by another participants who mildly blurted to me, ‘Why should I have to change myself? I like to talk about my family sometimes.’ In the overall discussions I heard more suggestions on changing yourself to get noticed then suggestions on what changes are needed in the environment, whether at work or home or general perceptions that lowers the pressures on women so that she can pursue her technical career.

In the same session I had asked a question about different feedback given to men and women by the supervisors. Usually women don’t get harsh feedback compared to men, which may seem like women have an advantage there. I asked the panelist if it’s true and if they felt this was also a form of discrimination. Although they agreed that this is common, they did not quite have an opinion on the second part of the question.

That is what I meant when I said the discussions lacked depth. I felt that everyone wanted to play safe. There was a reluctance to critique the policies and general practices that are discriminatory. May be the reluctance was due to the fear of being labeled as a feminist. Or may be it was a lack of rights based perspective on the issue. At the A2CWIC in Coimbatore, the good thing was that the speakers in the panel discussions did bring out topics that challenged traditional roles and practices. Even though not directly talking about women’s rights, there was a perspective. I would not know if the speakers were able to kindle questioning amongst the attendees on their position as women, but I was very satisfied by the arguments, thoughts and advise that came out.

After attending these three conferences, I feel it is a must to have women’s rights plenary in every such conference. Without the base understanding of women’s position, women’s rights, and what women’s right to equality really means, such conferences will not be able to bring the real dialogue needed to change the power roles of women in any field. For my facebook friends, this is what was going in my mind when I posted the status update “One thing that is hitting my mind right now.. we women, specially in Indian context, individually we are all heros, fighting our own battles bravely... but still as a community we fail to get what we want, to bring the change we want to see.. Do you feel the same way?” I was thinking about the disconnect between the women’s movement and the dialogue on equality from the real women who are fighting a battle in their life everyday. While there are a lot of efforts to eradicate violence and discrimination against women, most women are unaware of these efforts and most often unaware of the definition of violence and discrimination as well. When we are talking about women and technology gap, the understanding of indirect discrimination on women is really important, because that is the main reason behind it.